"People are trapped in the thinking spice means heat, they are so diverse"
Founder of The Urban Spice Shop, Dilan Perera knows how to spice up a meal
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Ever wondered where the spices in your favourite restaurant dishes come from? The Urban Spice Shop launched in 2017 with the aim to make 100% organic spices more accessible to all.
Based in Singapore, the brand provide high-end restaurants with high-quality authentic spices from spice farms in Sri Lanka, India and Madagascar. All the spices are 100% organic, hand packaged, sustainable and carefully sourced: ensuring a natural flavour and freshness.
Founder Dilan Perera chats to FoodTribe about where his range of spices come from, quashes a few spice-related mistruths, and shares his plan for world domination. Dilan also gives tips on how to pimp a takeaway. Hint: chilli flakes will soon become your new best friend. Just don't assume all spices are hot!
The Urban Spice Shop
Where did the idea for The Urban Spice Shop spark from?
My passion for organic food was the real starting point. I’m a huge advocate of organic food and living an organic lifestyle. So much of commercially grown food is contaminated with chemicals to increase productivity and that’s not good for nature or people’s health. Everything we consumed was traditionally organic and that’s the way food is meant to be.
How can we be clear on what is and isn’t authentically organic?
People misuse the word organic all the time and it happens a lot here in Singapore. Just because something is naturally grown does not mean it is organic. If we claimed organic and failed at that, everything we’re trying to achieve would be lost. My intention is to build a brand that helps people take their organic lifestyle forward.
Our organic ingredients are traceable and as an organic certified brand we follow very stringent processes and audits to ensure we only source the best organic spices. We also want to tackle the misconception that organic equals expensive. We make our products affordable, but they are not cheap.
How do you guarantee your products are 100% organic?
All our products are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and OneCert and that means they are assessed all the way from the farms where the raw ingredients are grown, to the manufacturing process and how the products are packaged and transported. Even the water is scrutinised, and this process happens every year.
The Urban Spice Shop
Where do you source your spices from right now?
We buy a lot of products from farms in Sri Lanka: our cloves come from the hill country in Sri Lanka. We sell Cinnamon from Sri Lanka – Ceylon Cinnamon is the best cinnamon in the world, while our white pepper comes from Kerala, in southern India. We have recently introduced vanilla from Madagascar, which is a new destination for us. All our products are single origin.
Do you have plans to work with farms directly or establish your own spice farms?
That's the goal. We don’t have our own farms right now or work with individual farmers yet, but we have plans to do so very soon. We are launching a new CSR programme called “The Urban Campaign” in 2020, and while I can't say much about that now, this initiative will help us in realising our dream of empowering and supporting farmers while providing superior products to customers.
Tell us about your chillies
Right now we sell Kashmir Chillies from India and they are sold whole, as flakes and in powder form. We have deliberately picked chillies that are not extremely spicy because they can be used across different kitchens and cuisines from Italian to Chinese. They can be infused subtly in creams, broths and stews without overpowering other ingredients.
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash
Why do you think people associate spice with heat?
It's one of the biggest misconceptions in the world of spice. I personally believe spices have such a wide variety of flavours and people are trapped in the thinking that spice means heat. Take nutmeg and cloves: they are both spices, but they have a unique tone, in the same way cinnamon has a sweetness to it and cumin goes very well with meat. Star anise has a liquorice quality to it and also a bit of a minty twist. Spices really are so diverse.
What is your favourite spice to cook with at home?
I am from Sri Lanka and live in Singapore, so the spices I like might not be what most people would like, but I must say cumin is one of my favourites. It's such a versatile spice and is just lovely in meat dishes and can add a new and unexpected dimension to burgers. I often make a cumin mix for barbecues too. Powdered or crushed it adds a really nice twist to meat that other spices just can’t achieve.
How do you recommend we should be storing spices?
If you are going to use a spice over a long period of time, I recommend keeping them in an air tight container and away from direct sunlight. Somewhere cool and dry and away from moisture is best. Wood, tin, Tupperware — the type of containers doesn’t matter but they need to be air tight, dry and in a cool place.
How do spices fit into Singapore's busy urban lifestyle?
Over the years the lifestyle in Singapore has evolved so much that people tend to eat out or order in more often than they cook at home. It's very different to the UK or Sri Lanka where people eat at home more regularly. It's down to people’s busy lifestyles here in Singapore. The good thing is though people grabbing spices to top up ready made and take out meals. Sprinkle chilli flakes or black pepper over a meal and it will jump to the next level in taste and freshness.
How best can we pimp takeaway meals with different spices?
Wherever you are in the world, if you order in food you can use spices to enhance that meal instantly. Sprinkle some chilli flakes over a takeaway pizza or pasta dish for example, or simply grind some high-quality organic pepper over a soup. We are looking into producing sachets of mixed spices to make this even easier for people at home.
Singapore: photo by Swapnil Bapat on Unsplash
Tell us about the future of The Urban Spice Shop?
Our long term plan is to go directly to farms and we are looking to introduce herbs into the range next year. We currently work with high-end Mediterranean and Italian restaurants, western restaurants and fusion restaurants and we have loyal customers and we'd love that number to grow.
Above all we want to keep our standards and quality high across the board. I've learnt so much about organic food since developing our first products and look forward to sharing the goodness of organic with consumers.
So world domination isn't far away?
We have intentions to expand globally and while we are an Asian spice company, we want to be known on an international basis. First we want to make an impact in the UK by the end of next year and beyond that we’re looking at the Middle East, Australian and Russian markets. The Urban Spice Shop team is very ambitious and our team work tirelessly to expand the business. This has been such a wonderful experience.
Check out more of the The Urban Spice Shop products and find out more about the company.